Will this be Osborne's worst week yet?

A higher deficit and a triple-dip recession could make this week even worse for the Chancellor than the last one.

Even by recent standards, last week was not a good one for George Osborne. Unemployment was found to have increased by 70,000, the IMF's chief economist warned that he was "playing with fire" by persisting with austerity, Carman Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff, two of the economists that the Chancellor leant heavily on to justify his economic approach, had their research on debt and growth discredited, and Fitch became the second credit rating agency to strip the UK of its AAA rating

But worse could be to come this week. Tomorrow, borrowing figures for March will be released, the final set for the 2012-13 financial year, and, for the first time since Osborne entered office, they could show that the deficit has risen in annual terms. At the Budget, the OBR forecast that borrowing would be £120.9bn in 2012-13, £100m less than in 2011-12, after the Treasury forced government departments to underspend by an extraordinary £10.9bn in the final months of this year and delayed payments to some international institutions such as the UN and the World Bank. But that £100m difference leaves the Chancellor with little room for error if tax revenues fall short or spending is higher than expected. Whether the deficit marginally rose or fell in 2012-13 is of little economic significance, but it is of immense political significance. Until now, even as growth has disappeared, the Chancellor has been able to boast that borrowing "is falling" and "will continue to fall each and every year". A higher deficit would make it far harder for him to claim that Britain is "on the right track".

Then, two days later, we will learn whether the UK has suffered its first-ever triple-dip recession when the ONS releases its estimate for GDP in Q1 of this year. Again, the Chancellor is expected to have a lucky escape, with most forecasters, in common with the OBR, predicting output of around 0.1 per cent. But that also leaves Osborne with little room for comfort if growth undershoots expectations (as it done so often has in recent history). IPPR's senior economist Tony Dolphin comments: "It is touch and go whether we triple dip, I would say 50/50. Retail sales were up a fraction in March, but manufacturing is expected to be flat and ­construction down. Services will be positive, but the question is whether it will be positive enough to offset construction." Again, whether output slightly grew or slightly shrank in the first quarter is of little economic signifinance. The broad picture is one of prolonged stagnation, with periods of growth alternating with periods of contraction. But as Osborne will know, it's the politics that matter. An unprecedented triple-dip would intensify the calls from all sides - Tory backbenchers, Vince Cable, Labour - for a change of approach, be it Keynesian stimulus or a supply-side revolution. 

There is one way that Osborne could avoid a triple-dip even if the economy is found to have shrunk in Q1: the preceding double-dip could be revised away. After previously estimating that output fell by 0.3 per cent in the final quarter of 2011, the ONS now says it fell by just 0.1 per cent. The number could be further upgraded this week. But such technicalities will count for little if the economy is reported to have shrunk again. 

Tory MPs previously suggested that they would demand the removal of Osborne if the economy failed to show signs of recovery by this time, with one telling the Daily Mail: "You wouldn’t get 80 people supporting Adam Afriyie for leader but you might get 80 or 100 people saying get rid of George." There is little prospect of Cameron acquiescing to such demands. The Prime Minister and his closest political ally continue to rise and fall together. But with the local elections just over a week away and Labour showing signs of strain, a renewed bout of Tory infighting would be unwelcome for Cameron. 

Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne attends a press conference at the Treasury in Whitehall on February 6, 2013. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Air pollution: 5 steps to vanquishing an invisible killer

A new report looks at the economics of air pollution. 

110, 150, 520... These chilling statistics are the number of deaths attributable to particulate air pollution for the cities of Southampton, Nottingham and Birmingham in 2010 respectively. Or how about 40,000 - that is the total number of UK deaths per year that are attributable the combined effects of particulate matter (PM2.5) and Nitrogen Oxides (NOx).

This situation sucks, to say the very least. But while there are no dramatic images to stir up action, these deaths are preventable and we know their cause. Road traffic is the worst culprit. Traffic is responsible for 80 per cent of NOx on high pollution roads, with diesel engines contributing the bulk of the problem.

Now a new report by ResPublica has compiled a list of ways that city councils around the UK can help. The report argues that: “The onus is on cities to create plans that can meet the health and economic challenge within a short time-frame, and identify what they need from national government to do so.”

This is a diplomatic way of saying that current government action on the subject does not go far enough – and that cities must help prod them into gear. That includes poking holes in the government’s proposed plans for new “Clean Air Zones”.

Here are just five of the ways the report suggests letting the light in and the pollution out:

1. Clean up the draft Clean Air Zones framework

Last October, the government set out its draft plans for new Clean Air Zones in the UK’s five most polluted cities, Birmingham, Derby, Leeds, Nottingham and Southampton (excluding London - where other plans are afoot). These zones will charge “polluting” vehicles to enter and can be implemented with varying levels of intensity, with three options that include cars and one that does not.

But the report argues that there is still too much potential for polluters to play dirty with the rules. Car-charging zones must be mandatory for all cities that breach the current EU standards, the report argues (not just the suggested five). Otherwise national operators who own fleets of vehicles could simply relocate outdated buses or taxis to places where they don’t have to pay.  

Different vehicles should fall under the same rules, the report added. Otherwise, taking your car rather than the bus could suddenly seem like the cost-saving option.

2. Vouchers to vouch-safe the project’s success

The government is exploring a scrappage scheme for diesel cars, to help get the worst and oldest polluting vehicles off the road. But as the report points out, blanket scrappage could simply put a whole load of new fossil-fuel cars on the road.

Instead, ResPublica suggests using the revenue from the Clean Air Zone charges, plus hiked vehicle registration fees, to create “Pollution Reduction Vouchers”.

Low-income households with older cars, that would be liable to charging, could then use the vouchers to help secure alternative transport, buy a new and compliant car, or retrofit their existing vehicle with new technology.

3. Extend Vehicle Excise Duty

Vehicle Excise Duty is currently only tiered by how much CO2 pollution a car creates for the first year. After that it becomes a flat rate for all cars under £40,000. The report suggests changing this so that the most polluting vehicles for CO2, NOx and PM2.5 continue to pay higher rates throughout their life span.

For ClientEarth CEO James Thornton, changes to vehicle excise duty are key to moving people onto cleaner modes of transport: “We need a network of clean air zones to keep the most polluting diesel vehicles from the most polluted parts of our towns and cities and incentives such as a targeted scrappage scheme and changes to vehicle excise duty to move people onto cleaner modes of transport.”

4. Repurposed car parks

You would think city bosses would want less cars in the centre of town. But while less cars is good news for oxygen-breathers, it is bad news for city budgets reliant on parking charges. But using car parks to tap into new revenue from property development and joint ventures could help cities reverse this thinking.

5. Prioritise public awareness

Charge zones can be understandably unpopular. In 2008, a referendum in Manchester defeated the idea of congestion charging. So a big effort is needed to raise public awareness of the health crisis our roads have caused. Metro mayors should outline pollution plans in their manifestos, the report suggests. And cities can take advantage of their existing assets. For example in London there are plans to use electronics in the Underground to update travellers on the air pollution levels.

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Change is already in the air. Southampton has used money from the Local Sustainable Travel Fund to run a successful messaging campaign. And in 2011 Nottingham City Council became the first city to implement a Workplace Parking levy – a scheme which has raised £35.3m to help extend its tram system, upgrade the station and purchase electric buses.

But many more “air necessities” are needed before we can forget about pollution’s worry and its strife.  

 

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.